(Note: This is a very long entry. But, I hope you enjoy it.)
These past four months have really been busy – especially this last month. At work, we’re coming to closure on two testing projects that I’ve been managing. As with anything of this nature, the closer the end gets, the more hectic the pace and effort become. There are very few breaks.
So, my good friend, R.T., invited me to accompany him to a Saudi friend’s family compound, I jumped at the chance – not only to get away from the work environment and thoughts of deadlines, but to get away from Riyadh and see what Saudi culture is like away from the big city.
(Note: I have changed the names of our Saudi friends for their protection. While I would not expect anything negative to happen to them (I doubt my blog is high on the terrorist reading list), there are dangerous elements that do operate within the Kingdom, and I don’t want to take the chance. Besides, it will let me introduce you to a range of Arabic male names you might not otherwise come across.)
The farming community in which Abdullah and his family reside – and have lived in for over 250 years – is about 75 kilometers from Riyadh. The town is located in a valley through which the Egyptians and the Turks marched in their battle with the various tribes that wandered Asia Minor, particularly the Saud family. The thing I noticed about the town was how much it reminded me of my own town back in the States. A main streets runs through the middle of town, and the population is roughly the same as my town. We might have them beat with regard to the number of signal lights, but I am not sure about that. Store fronts line the main street, and in the fashion of the region, the doors roll up into the ceiling, and men work in full view of those who pass by. No Wal-Mart Super Centers. Yet.
Compounds abound. Some house multi-family dwellings, but the majority house family residences. We went first to the compound of Abdullah’s father, but R.T. didn’t see the vehicle he expected. So, he called our host and found that he was at another compound. I was driving and taking directions, which is always a challenge; but it was a small town. How hard could it be? After several minutes of odd turns, we concluded that we didn’t know where we were – regardless how small the place was. R.T. called our host again, and when asked where we were at, he responded, “In front of the mosque.” In Saudi Arabia, that’s like saying, “We’re under a tree.” We both laughed about it afterward. Suffice it to say we got to where we were going by waiting for Abdullah to come find us and lead us to his compound.
I pulled my car into the dirt driveway and parked nose first against a cinder block wall. Cinder blocks abound in KSA; they’re used for everything. They are the walls in houses, building, and comprise many fences. Then they are covered in stucco. If it wasn’t for the thoubs, you’d swear you were in Baja California. They even have the palm trees.
The houses are set on concrete slabs, and the slab sometimes extends out from the house, creating a patio. This was the case inside Abdullah’s compound. A very large carpet had been laid out in one corner of the enclosed slab. We removed our shoes, as did everyone else. Then, we sat down and leaned against the wall. Our host sat down, cross-legged, and faced us ready for the inquisition. Soon, he was surrounded by two boys and a girl, ranging in age from about five to ten. Another gentleman joined us and was introduced as Abdullah’s brother Saad. A bit later his brother Saif showed up as well.
Saudis are inquisitive. They want to know everything, and I mean everything. There are not a lot of limits on the nature of questions, save for the ubiquitous taboo of asking about a man’s wife/wives. “Where are you from?” “How long have you been here?” “How big is your family?” “Why are you so fat?” The last question, they asked good-naturedly, with a wry sense of humor evident in their faces. Not much room for an overly sensitive ego.
The muezzin called for the Maghrib prayer not long after we arrived. The adults went off to the sinks to perform wudu, the ritual cleansing that takes place before prayer time, depending on whether or not certain criteria have been met. One is supposed to be clean before Allah in both body and mind. Soon, they returned to the rug, and it became evident they were going to pray toward Mecca right there. I asked R.T. if we were supposed to move, but he told me, no. Saad edged forward a bit from the other two brothers and began to lead the prayer, acting as the imam. Very quickly, the three kids joined the adults – mimicking the gestures, if not the words, as best they could.
After prayer, we followed Abdullah to his father’s compound – the first place to which we’d driven. This time we parked the car and got out. While Abdullah unloaded the kids’ bikes from the trunk of his car, we followed Saad into the compound. There was an interior courtyard. A set of rooms flanked us to the right, with another set to our left. In front of us was a wall with windows, and a breezeway opened to another apparent courtyard on the other side. I could hear women’s voices, so I guessed that was where the ladies were all hanging out.
We went to our left and entered a room that probably measured about 14′ x 20′ – roughly the same size of the living room in our house in SoCal. This room served the same purpose. Another huge carpet covered the slab floor, and a television sat on a stand at the end of the room closest to the door. Plaster covered the walls and the ceiling, with a relief design encircling the pedestal of a ceiling fan that hung from the middle of the room. An air conditioner had been set into the wall, high above the floor and seemed a bit anachronistic. A crack in the ceiling plaster extended about 2′ from the far corner of the wall opposite to the one where an elderly man sat on the floor watching satellite television, his cane laid down beside him.
I was introduced to Pop (I never quite caught his name), and he asked me, in Arabic, how I was doing. I returned the question in my own Arabic. He answered, “Kwaizs (good).” I am guessing he was in his late 70s, perhaps early 80s, and he had a twinkle in his eye, as well as a mischievous little upturn of the lips that led me to believe he was probably quite the handful for his sons. I settled down on the floor with my back against the same wall as Pop used. I realized he’d chosen this wall because it afforded him a clear vantage from which to see who would be coming into the door of the room.
Abdullah, Saif, and Saad all settled in, until a teen boy, who I guessed might be Saif’s son, showed up. Everyone, except Pop, stood and shook hands. The boy kissed the tops of his uncles’ heads, as well as his grandfather’s, then took his place on the floor. Pretty soon, a tray of coffee and cups, as well as three different types of dates arrived. The young guy pulled the trays into the middle of the room. First he served his grandfather, then he served R.T. and me. Next he offered coffee to the other men, before finally serving himself. This pattern held true throughout the evening. Only when he was not present in the room did someone else serve the refreshments.
Saudi coffee. What can I say good about Saudi coffee? Umm…well, it’s made of coffee. It’s got cardamom in it, and milk, and it’s strained through palm fronds. Umm…and, well, it tastes like spicy dishwater. Thankfully, they serve it in demitasse cups, so it is only necessary to endure a small amount of it at a time. I was glad to see the tea arrive, and I switched as quickly as I could; though, I did have to quaff a couple of other cups of the stuff before the evening was over.
Another of the brothers arrived. He was the farmer of the bunch – the one who stayed at home and tended the family lands, cultivating the various crops they raised. The rest of the brothers worked in Riyadh (I am not absolutely certain of that fact, but that is how things came across during the evening – I know for sure it was true of Abdullah). The family raises dates and chickens and various garden vegetables. They even raise prize camels – one of which is valued at over SAR300,000 – or around US$100,000. One man, of which they were aware, owned a camel worth over US$1,000,000. Who knew?
Various friends arrived during the two hours or so we were at Pop’s place. The ritual remained pretty much the same. Rise. Shake hands. The friends kissed each other’s cheeks. The younger male relatives kissed the tops of the heads of the older male relatives. Coffee or tea. Dates. Vigorous conversation ensued. All in Arabic. I could make out the word and sentence breaks, but I understood little of the conversation. Every once in a while, someone would turn and ask R.T. or me what we thought about a particular subject – often political. “So, when will the U.S. invade Iran?”
One of the more interesting moments came as the result of them settling on an odd television presentation. There was this huge tent-like building into which hundreds of men were filing. Presenters were commenting on the event, and at some point men sitting at a table across the width of the building began to address the crowd. Words scrolled across the bottom of the screen, including what were obviously phone numbers.
Abdullah caught me looking at the television, and he asked me if I knew what was going on. I replied that I did not. Turns out the largest tribe in Saudi Arabia (don’t ask me the name of the tribe – though I do need to find out at some point) was having a big get together, including a huge livestock show the next day featuring their best camels. They were paying for the event in a manner similar to they way a telethon raises money – by scrolling phone numbers across the screen and asking for donations. They’d been quite successful in the effort and had managed to pay for the entire event via donations.
What intrigued me, though, was when Abdullah remarked that this was what would happen if the monarchy ever fell apart – the people of Saudi Arabia (Saudis in a national sense only) would revert back to their still solid tribal ties. There would be no particular chaos, but there would be no sense of national unity as exists today. Of course, the economic growth explosion would end, and there would be a battle for control of the oil fields. Everything would be based around tribal ties and alliances.
After a couple of hours, we went over to Farmer’s compound, which was pretty much the same as Abdullah’s. Except, a large portion of the land behind the house was cultivated for garden vegetables, as well as an area for chickens. The camels were located elsewhere. We were greeted by Farmer’s son, a very handsome and bright boy, probably about 12-years-old, who spoke exquisite English – English he’d learned from watching American movies. We settled in, including Pop, and again engaged in conversation and television viewing. A game similar to pinochle broke out next to me. I was asked to play, but I was unsure of the rules that governed their version of the game; so I declined. I was quite happy to observe and try to figure it out from watching them play. On the television an important soccer game between two high profile Saudi teams captured the attention of most everyone else.
Abdullah arrived with pita bread and yogurt. We dipped the warm pita into the yogurt and ate it in that fashion. I never would have thought of dipping bread into yogurt, but it was quite good. The servants, two men, fired up the grill on which they were soon roasting chickens – presumably culled from the ones they raised. Between the dates and the pita/yogurt, I was already getting full.
Though I could understand little of the conversation, I was not bored. I enjoyed being able to watch the dynamics of family and friends in what was obviously an event repeated from week to week on Thursday nights. I was reminded of my own family and some of the wonderful Thanksgiving meals we’ve enjoyed over the years with our extended group of friends. The interaction was the same. Friendly, fun, and playful. Kids getting into trouble just like kids back home do. When one of his sons took his bicycle too close to a busy road near the compound (visible through an open door in the wall), Abdullah launched into a verbal chastisement that would have been understood by any parent in any country. No translation was necessary.
The moment I had been dreading arrived. The chicken was done. I had not been sure how to handle this. I didn’t want to be ungracious, but I didn’t want to eat the meat. The very thought of biting into the flesh of the chicken was pretty repulsive to me. I put it off a bit by going to the restroom. But, upon my return, it was pretty obvious I had to decide what to do.
A couple of plastic tarps had been placed on the carpets, and the chicken was placed in the center of the tarp. Pita was put on a plate and made available to everyone. Ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise was there, too. Everyone else was already eating, and they made a place for me. I selected the smallest leg/thigh combo I could find and busied myself pulling the meat from the bone, trying to avoid the inevitable. The brothers began to entreat me to eat, which I did very slowly. I ate slow enough that I only had to consume a little bit of the chicken before everyone else was done. They asked me if I wanted more, lifting the plate and pushing it toward me. But, I begged off, telling them I was already really full – which was true. I survived it, though I hope I am a bit more straight forward next time.
The evening wound down very quickly afterward. There was a big wedding the next day, and I surmised people were leaving early in view of that; though, I could have been totally wrong. Whatever, the place was mostly empty by 11:30pm. From what I have been told, that is pretty unusual, that these things normally go until about 3am or even longer. R.T. was having some stomach problems, so we excused ourselves after thanking our hosts many times for their hospitality. I’d had a tremendously good time, and I let them know. They invited me back out, but told me to arrive during the day so they could show me around their place. I hope to do so sometime soon.
On my way back to Riyadh, I reflected on what had been a very pleasant night, realizing that such nights extended back for hundreds of years in this desert land.
Copyright, Greg Hubbard, 2007.
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